Updated Sept. 4 to add comments from the City of San Antonio
The Justice Department has reached an agreement with the City of San Antonio, Texas to resolve allegations that the city violated federal law by illegally selling at least 227 vehicles belonging to service members between 2011 and 2019, without obtaining court orders.
The Justice Department’s investigation was prompted by the complaint of Air Force Staff Sgt. Paula Rangel, who alleged her vehicle had been towed and auctioned off while she was deployed to Afghanistan in 2016. Rangel learned that her vehicle had been impounded at a city facility in August, 2016, and she and her military legal assistance attorney called the facility on several occasion to try to arrange for the release of the vehicle, according to the complaint filed Thursday in federal court in San Antonio. A proposed settlement agreement was also filed Thursday. It must be approved by the court.
The complaint alleged the city violated the rights of service members under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.
On Sept. 21, 2016, the operator of the facility sold Rangel’s vehicle at auction for $6,600, without obtaining a court order, the complaint alleges. She still owed about $19,000 on the vehicle loan. Employees at the storage facility refused to release the vehicle to members of Rangel’s military unit — including Rangel’s first sergeant — and wouldn’t allow them to remove her personal property and military equipment from the vehicle, according to the complaint.
The city owns the vehicle storage facility, but the facility’s vehicle storage and vehicle auction operations are conducted by a private contractor on behalf of the city, according to the court document. The city was the only named defendant.
“The City provides notice as required by State law to registered owners of vehicles in its impound facility before vehicles are auctioned,” said City Attorney Andy Segovia, in a statement to Military Times Friday. After the complaint was made leading to the Justice Department investigation, he said, “the City fully cooperated with the investigation and worked with the DOJ to reach a settlement that included developing policies to assure that the deployment status of service members could be determined before a vehicle is auctioned, to assure full notice is given.... The City will continue to work with the military community to assure service members’ rights are protected.”
The San Antonio city council also approved the agreement with the Justice Department, on Aug. 20.
The proposed settlement agreement states that the parties have agreed to resolve the claims against the city “to avoid costly and protracted litigation.”
“We are pleased that the city has worked cooperatively with the department to reach a settlement that will compensate all the service members who lost their vehicles and will provide additional protections for the thousands of service members stationed in and around San Antonio,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
About 80,000 military members are stationed at Joint Base San Antonio.
This is the third lawsuit filed by Justice attorneys in two weeks regarding allegations of violating troops’ rights under the SCRA by selling off vehicles or other property.
Under this proposed agreement, which requires court approval, San Antonio must pay $47,000 to two service members who alleged their vehicles were illegally sold while they were in the military. That includes $29,000 to Rangel, and $18,000 to Army Spec. Joshua White, whose motorcycle was towed on Sept. 1, 2015 while he was away for a few weeks on a training exercise.
When White returned, he reported to the San Antonio Police Department that his motorcycle had been stolen, but SAPD never told him his motorcycle had been towed, according to the complaint. On Oct. 21, 2015, his motorcycle was sold at auction for $1,432, without obtaining a court order, according to the complaint. He still owed about $8,300 on the loan for the motorcycle.
The proposed settlement also requires the city to establish a $150,000 settlement fund to compensate other service members whose SCRA rights may have been violated, and pay a $62,029 civil penalty to the U.S. Treasury.
Among other things, the proposed agreement requires the city to stop disposing of service members’ vehicles or property, without a court order. Within 60 days of the approval of the agreement, the city must develop SCRA policies and procedures for vehicle sales and disposal. The city must also provide SCRA compliance training to employees assigned to that impound facility.
Under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a court must review and approve a company’s enforcement of a storage lien of a military member’s property during, or within 90 days after a period of service. This allows a judge to consider the factors involved, and possibly delay the enforcement of the storage lien or adjust the amount of money the service member owes to the towing company.
The lawsuit alleged that San Antonio doesn’t determine whether the vehicles they auction, sell or otherwise dispose of are owned by service members protected under the SCRA. DoD maintains a free database that companies can check to determine if an individual is a service member.